Giant Swallowtails 2018

Historically, a Giant Swallowtail sighting in the Northeast was a rare and exciting event  because the primary range of the species is the Southeast, where caterpillars forage on the foliage of citrus trees and related host plants. That seems to be changing. Increased sightings of these large butterflies in the Northeast over the last decade provide strong evidence of range expansion. My photographic records are a case in point. I saw my first Giant Swallowtail in Central New York in August, 2011. To date, I have 7 sightings in 8 years. Six were in August, on Phlox, and one was in June, on Dame’s Rocket.

Visits from these beauties are always a surprise encounter, followed by a brief, somewhat frantic, photo shoot. This one appeared in the heat of the afternoon on August 23. It “hopped” and fluttered around a large patch of cultivated Phlox, feeding intensely on the nectar of the tubular flowers. It’s not “fresh” – the hindwings are tattered and the long, spoon-shaped tails missing – but it’s a summer highlight that I won’t soon forget!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

Dame’s Rocket

It seems that whenever I search for flowering plants to photograph I find myself having to “man up” and admit that I’m fond of aliens. The blooms of Wild Domestic Apple, Autumn Olive, Black Locust and, now, Dame’s Rocket, have all been impressive — and not one of these plants is native to this area.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis; Mustard family) is everywhere now, especially on disturbed sites with moist soils – abandoned fields, forest openings and edges, the neglected borders of lawns, etc. Native to Eurasia and introduced over 200 years ago, it is now widely distributed across most of North America. Extensive, nearly pure stands are common and, in late spring, a dominant landscape feature.

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A naturalized stand of Dame’s Rocket, showing the wide range of flower colors typical of the species

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A nearly pure stand of Dame’s Rocket on the moist floodplain of a small stream

Dame’s Rocket is easily mistaken for a garden Phlox. An alternate leaf arrangement and 4 petals distinguish it from this plant group, which has opposite leaves and 5 petals.

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The Forest Invasive Plants Resource Center is keeping a watchful eye on the spreading Dame’s Rocket, monitoring the “invasion” to determine threats to native flora and fauna.  I monitor Dame’s Rocket for it’s natural beauty and, more importantly, the impressive array of colorful wildlife species that are attracted to the prolific, fragrant bloom.

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Giant Swallowtail nectaring on Dame’s Rocket, 9June14; an unusual, if not rare, sighting in the Northeast

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Flower Spider, an ambush predator, on Dame’s Rocket

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Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Dame’s Rocket

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Perpetual Motion – the Giant Swallowtail!

Twice in the last three years something exotic has unexpectedly fluttered into my life, teased me for a minute or two, and then floated up and away over the tree tops. In each case I was relaxing in a lawn chair on a warm August afternoon, and in both instances I bolted into the house to get my camera and prepare for the digital capture of a subject that was moving constantly and erratically, wings blurred by rapid, perpetual motion.

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If you live in the Deep South you will probably get a good laugh from this post, or quickly leave to search for something more interesting. The visitor was a Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes), a species that is quite common in the South but unfamiliar to most northerners.  I’ve been chasing butterflies since old enough to walk but had never seen, or heard of, this species until 2011. Soon after that initial encounter, it was featured in the August, 2011 issue of the New York State Conservationist magazine in an article by Terry Mosher : “Swallowtail Surprise”. An older field guide to eastern butterflies lists my location in central New York as the extreme northern fringe of the range of this butterfly but sightings have increased throughout the Northeast in recent years. Climate change is no doubt an influencing factor in this trend. I’m also suspicious that “snow birds” – the millions of humans that migrate North to South in the winter – might have something to do with the distribution of the species.

Surprisingly, the Giant Swallowtail ranges far beyond the flower gardens, pine flats and Citrus groves of the South, occurring from southeastern Canada to South America. Adults nectar on many flowering plants, including Goldenrod and Phlox in the Northeast. The caterpillars (called “orangedogs” in the South) love plants in the Citrus family (in some cases to the point of being a pest), but also feed on a thicket-forming shrub found in this region: Northern Prickly-ash.

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The nectaring flight pattern of a Giant Swallowtail is mesmerizing: flight movement is slow, but the wings, particularly the forewings, flutter constantly and rapidly as it bounces, hops and darts from flower to flower. The only pauses in rapid wing motion – mere fractions of a second – occur first when the butterfly is nectaring and again between flower visits.

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Appropriately named, the Giant Swallowtail is among the largest butterflies in North America (some claim it’s the largest), with a wing span of about 6 inches (noticeably larger than the familiar Tiger Swallowtail).

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”          –  John Muir

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.